Written by Derryl Hermanutz
We hear that China’s new “conservative” leaders have all read Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1856 book, The Old Regime and the Revolution, and are recommending it to their friends. Western pundits opine that China’s government feels that maintaining legitimacy with the governed depends on keeping the Chinese economy humming along. The government fears “revolutionary” democratic fervor, and seeks to placate the people by creating macroeconomic conditions that foster opportunity and widely distributed enhancement of the people’s standard of living. If, as proved to be the case in post-Revolutionary France, it becomes clear that the people actually value state fostered wealth and security over political liberty, then this strategy will work if it can be executed successfully.
Class Divisions and National Integrity
What lessons might the new Chinese leaders be gleaning from their study of de Tocqueville? I think the following few paragraphs, especially the parenthesized, sum up the most relevant conclusion: which is, in a nutshell, that unequal privilege creates class divisions that destroy the integrity of the nation,
“Though the career of the nobility and that of the middle classes had differed widely, there was one point of resemblance between them: both had kept themselves aloof from the people. Instead of uniting with the peasantry, the middle classes had shrunk from the contact of their miseries; instead of joining them to combat the principle of inequality of ranks, they had only sought to aggravate the injustice of their position: they had been as eager for exceptional rights as the nobility for privileges. Themselves sprung from the ranks of the peasantry, they had so lost all recollection and knowledge of their former character, that it was not till they had armed the peasants that they perceived they had roused passions which they could neither gauge, guide, nor restrain, and of which they were destined to be the victims as well as the authors.
The ruin of the great house of France, which once promised to spread over the whole Continent, will always be a subject of wonder, but no careful student of its history can fail to comprehend its fall. With few exceptions, all the vices, all the errors, all the fatal prejudices which I have sketched, owed either their origin, or their continuance, or their development to the exertions made by most of our kings to create distinctions of classes in order to govern more absolutely.
But when the work was complete – when the nobility were isolated from the middle classes, and both from the peasantry – when each class contained a variety of small private associations, each as distinct from the others as the classes themselves, the whole nation, though homogeneous, was composed of parts that did not hold together. There was no organization that could resist the government, but there was none that could assist it. So it was that, the moment the groundwork moved, the whole edifice of the French monarchy gave way and fell with a crash.
Nor did the people, in taking advantage of the faults of their masters, and throwing off their yoke, wholly succeed in eradicating the false notions, the vicious habits, the bad propensities these masters had either imparted or allowed them to acquire. They have at times used liberty like slaves, and shown themselves to be as incapable of self-government as they were void of pity for their old teachers“
Hot Times in the Little Ice Age
de Tocqueville’s book describes the institutional governing and socioeconomic structures that prevailed in 18th century France prior to the 1789 Revolution. Europe was still suffering the cold winters and erratic weather that characterized the Little Ice Age, with sometimes devastating effects on agriculture, so famines were not uncommon. Nevertheless, due to the myriad “exemptions” enjoyed by the French nobility and many of the wealthy commoners, the heaviest burden of taxation was always laid upon the countryside, the poorest people, which taught the Third Estate (the people, the farmers and peasants, the politically invisible class) to hate the administrative bureaucracy that allocated and collected the taxes even while the people loved their monarchs with almost religious reverence. They hated the taxes of tyranny, but they loved their glorious tyrants.
In the 140 years prior to 1789 France’s government had been radically centralized. A comptroller-general exercised absolute authority over every aspect of public expenditure and taxation down to the local level. The comptroller-general appointed as his agent in each Province an intendant who exercised direct authority on behalf of his master. The intendants, in turn, appointed a sub-delegate for each canton. Their administrative and judicial authority was supreme. This administration, this “fiscal bureaucracy“, effectively ruled France in the name of the King.
de Tocqueville, who extensively researched through the voluminous and fastidious old records, writes of red tape absurdities such as a parish waiting 3 years for permission to spend 25 livres of its own money to repair its church steeple. Sometimes the comptroller-general would demand to personally review such requests and make every decision himself for the entire nation, which accounts for the extreme bureaucratic backlogs.
Country people were routinely pressed (via an in-kind labor tax called the corvee) into unpaid work at road maintenance and other local improvements which benefited them but slightly and enhanced access to a local noble’s estate or benefited one of the many trade corporations. The government sold corporate charters, with their monopolistic privileges, as a revenue generator.
18th Century “Brain” Drain
The French nobility, meanwhile, retained most of their feudal privileges and tax exemptions, but were entirely shut out of the governing process. As they grew steadily poorer they sold off their lands to French farmers who exhibited a mania for land ownership, even though these farmer-owned lands were subject to the heaviest taxes and were routinely expropriated for corporate and public works, with untimely or nonexistent compensation. Nobles sometimes worried that the excessive tailles (taxes) levied against the farmers would deprive those farmers of sufficient funds to purchase noble lands.
Among the middle class, commoners (including farmers) whose industry had made them wealthy, sent their sons to Paris for education and purchased titles from the government. Titles came with privileges and/or tax exemptions. Because the tailles in Paris were lower than in the countryside, and the tax was allocated according to place of residence, the wealth and talent of France fled the Provinces and flooded into Paris.
Demeaning the Victims
With the countryside’s best and brightest removed to the city, agricultural technology stagnated. An English agriculturalist surveying French farms of the era describes what he saw as “10th century”. The French nobility and middle class, though the middle class was itself only recently elevated from among the peasantry, universally bemoaned the ignorance and backwardness of the French countryside. The middle class took pains to utterly dissociate themselves from their rural roots and to identify their interests with none but their own recently citified and privileged class.
So by 1789 we have an institutional structure where all executive political power has been centralized in the hands of an unaccountable administration for a century or more. The “parliaments” of nobles have long been toothless, incapable of legislating any fiscal matters at all. de Tocqueville observes that the nobility become less a “class” than a “caste”, jealously clinging to their economic privileges but failing to accept any wider political responsibility for the state of the nation.
The middle class is focused on becoming wealthy enough to winter in or move to Paris and buy titles, and has no political powers or aspirations at all beyond avoiding taxes and social climbing. The peasants are bent on buying land and stalwartly suffer the oppressive corvees and tailles and whatever “extraordinary” taxes the administration decides to levy against them. There is no recourse to law or justice. The administration exercises final judicial authority.